Review – Alaska by James Michener

Synopsis from B&N:

In this sweeping epic of the northernmost American frontier, James A. Michener guides us across Alaska’s fierce terrain, from the long-forgotten past to the bustling technological present, as his characters struggle for survival. The exciting high points of Alaska’s story, from its brutal prehistory, through the nineteenth century and the American acquisition, to its modern status as America’s thriving forty-ninth state, are brought vividly to life in this remarkable novel: the gold rush; the tremendous growth and exploitation of the salmon industry; the discovery of oil and its social and economic consequences; the difficult construction of the Alcan Highway, which made possible the defense of the territory in World War II. A spellbinding portrait of a human community struggling to establish its place in the world, Alaska traces a bold and majestic history of the enduring spirit of a land and its people.

My thoughts:

I was given a stack of books by my relatives to read and review – they like knowing they are contributing to my reading addiction. *grin* This is the first, loaned by my Grandpa. Wow. It’s almost hard to put into words my reaction to such a vast novel. Michener literally traces the entire history of Alaska – his first chapter deals with the crashing together of plates that formed the region into its mountainous terrain. Next, he introduces us to the animals that would have inhabited the region before humans moved onto the scene. It’s hard to describe his style of writing, because it is very detailed, almost in a textbook sort of way, but it never feels like reading a dry history book. It is very much a novel, with excitement brimming on each page.

Michener must have done an enormous amount of research before writing this novel, and in the front of the book he details, section by section, which characters and situations are historical fact, and which are author inventions to further the action of the novel. He is able to weave the fact and the fiction together so seamlessly that I was never aware of which was which. It is quite an accomplishment to write an 800+ page novel that never feels too long, but I was definitely left wanting more.

I was completely captivated by the characters he created, from the men and women of the native people to the animals who survived next to them. On several occasions he writes from an animal’s perspective, and manages to not make that seem weird. Only after I had put the book down did I think, “Wow, I just read about salmon spawning from the salmon’s point of view – that’s never happened before.” I appreciated that he wrote female characters who were just as strong and capable as their male counterparts – the people who settled Alaska were incredibly brave, and he allowed us to experience their journeys along with them in a completely fascinating way.

One of the best parts of the novel, for me, was feeling like I was learning about the history of our country as I was reading. I know one of the reasons my Grandpa enjoys Michener so much is that he includes so much history and geography in his novels, and in this one particularly there is much Grandpa would be able to relate to. He was stationed in the Pacific Theater during WWII, so when Michener describes the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands, that is something he would have been very familiar with.

Also, when the US government selected Minnesota families to move to Alaska to start a new life during the Depression, they were chosen from the area in which Grandpa grew up. He loaned me his own copy of the novel, and in it he underlined the names of the cities he knew, as well as other events and ideas he remembered from that time. I really enjoyed reading about a part of history that my own family lived through – amazing.

I did have a little bit of trouble with the pacing of the novel – because Michener covers SO MUCH ground, each chapter is essentially about a new era of Alaska’s development, and much of the time would involve a completely new set of characters. I found that prevented me from becoming completely engrossed in the story, since I had to acquaint myself with a new cast each time. However, it would be ideal for someone who reads more than one book at a time – this is the type of novel that could easily be set aside, and resumed a few days later. Also, I felt like it ended rather abruptly – suddenly, we were just done! That’s an odd thing to say for such a long novel, I know, but true.

In general, however, I loved this book. It was a fascinating and encompassing look at a place I would love to visit someday!

Finished: 2/8/09

Source: Grandpa W.
Rating: 8/10

Reviewed by: Elizabeth

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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